Khalid Akhter, DHNS, May 12 2012 : Haj subsidy: Payout ‘dubious’ say some Muslims, others argue it’s voluntary aid
Haj, meaning ‘setting off to a place’, in Islam is a pilgrimage undertaken to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. One of the five pillars of Islam, Haj is a fundamental duty to be performed at least once in a lifetime by Muslims, provided one can afford it.
Verse 97 of Sura 3, Al–e-Imran of Quran mentions about the obligation of performing Haj by a Muslim.
The verse reads: “In it are manifest signs (for example), the Maqam (place) of Ibrahim (Abraham); whosoever enters it, he attains security. And Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) to the House (Ka’bah) is a duty that mankind owes to Allah, (by) those who can afford the expenses (for one’s conveyance, provision and residence); and whoever disbelieves (i.e. denies Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca), then he is a disbeliever in Allah), then Allah stands not in need of any of the Alamin (mankind, jinn and all that exists).”
The Supreme Court of India quoted this verse while pronouncing its order on May 8 last, directing the Central government to phase out Haj subsidy, now amounting to Rs 685 crore, over a period of ten years and using this money to improve socio-economic conditions of members of the Muslim community, who stand very low in human development indices.
“The subsidy money may be more profitably used for uplift of the community in education and other indices of social development,” the apex court said in its verdict.
The ruling by a Bench of Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Prakash Desai, to scrap the Haj subsidy which has been operational since 1973, has been welcomed by many members of the Muslim community, which they say is not a transparent practise. Asaduddin Owaisi, Lok Sabha MP and Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) party chief, welcomed the decision of the court and said: “It is a welcome decision. I had been demanding it for long. The Haj subsidy of Rs 600 crore is given to Air India and not pilgrims... Under the garb of subsidy, it (money) is going to Air India which is a sick airline."
Echoing his view, Ahmad Bukhari, Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid said, “The whole process of subsidy is dubious and there is something fishy about air fares almost trebling during the time of Haj. Instead of subsidising the enhanced fares, the government should go in for open tendering process for tickets”.
The apex court also noted the hike in air fares during Haj and observed in its verdict that “the air fare to Jeddah for travelling on Haj is increased by airlines to more than double as a result of the regulations imposed by the Saudi Arabian authorities. In the year 2011, the air fare for Haj pilgrims was Rs 58,800 though the normal to and fro fare to Jeddah should have been around Rs 25,000”.
According to the regulations imposed by Saudi government, the flights will have to return empty to India after carrying the pilgrims to Jeddah and vice versa.
A senior official of the Haj Committee here said that the best way to assist pilgrims would be for the Ministry of Civil Aviation to speak to Saudi Arabia government on the high cost of air travel and opt for open tendering of tickets.
Meanwhile, the decision of the apex court to scrap Haj subsidy is also being hailed as a major decision reinforcing secular character of India and separation of state and religion.
The issue of Haj subsidy has often provided enough ammunition to the sangh parivar to construct its plank of anti-minority politics.
However, Haj subsidy is not the only payout from the state exchequer for carrying out religious duties of citizens’ faith. One such supported by the government is the pilgrimage to Kailash Manasarovar in Tibet region of China.
The Ministry of External Affairs, which organises the yatra to Manasarovar pays Rs 3,250 per pilgrim to the government of Uttarakhand and the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam for providing logistical support to pilgrims.
According to MEA figures, in 2010, 754 pilgrims went to Kailash Manasarovar.
Recently, BJP Member of Parliament Yogi Adityanath demanded that the government should provide 50 per cent subsidy to pilgrims bound on the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra, who have to visit places located in difficult terrain of China.
Raising the issue in Parliament during Zero Hour, just a day before the Supreme Court ruled against the Haj subsidy, Yogi Adityanath urged the government to show “some sensitivity” towards the spiritual cause of Hindus and demanded subsidy for the pilgrims.
Spending on religious dos
Governments have been doling out money from the exchequer to fund various religious activities and functions. In 2008, the decision of the Jammu and Kashmir government to transfer 100 acres of forestland to Amarnath shrine promoters, created a big political storm in the state.
The late Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Rajsekhara Reddy in 2008 introduced a scheme for subsidised pilgrimage for Christians on the lines of the Haj pilgrimage. The state government offered a subsidy of Rs.20,000 to each pilgrim. The scheme, however, could not be implemented because of various reasons, including death of YSR in 2009.
Even the Supreme Court, in its verdict, did not fail to make this observation. It said: “We are also not oblivious of the fact that in many other purely religious events, there are direct and indirect deployment of state funds and state resources.”
However, the apex court left the issue untouched, whether such expenditure from government exchequer on non-Haj religious events should continue or not, while asserting: “...Nevertheless, we are of the view that Haj subsidy is something that is best done away with”.
The apparently lopsided judgement has upset some sections of the Muslim community as well. A senior official of the Haj Committee of India, who did not want to be named said:
“This decision is certainly going to put a heavy burden on those yearning to go for Haj. The court should have spelt out some alternatives since pilgrims pay a higher air fare during Haj. The order doesn’t speak anything about that.”
Maulana Anzar, who undertook Haj pilgrimage in 2011, believes there is nothing wrong with the government giving subsidy.
The teacher of Islamiyat and Urdu in a government school in Bijore district of Uttar Pradesh said, “Yes, one should go on Haj with his own money. Here, we are not asking or borrowing money from the government. Instead, the government is giving subsidy on its own because of certain social obligations and there is nothing wrong with it.”